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In my world, most of the kingdom that the story takes place in is dominated by forests, with very few quarries or caves. The only active mines are on the edges of the kingdom, which are run by a cult-like group that only exports small amounts of metals to the capital city.

Due to the need for forging weapons and armor to combat an upcoming threat, what could I use as an alternative currency that would be common in woodland areas, but not easily counterfeited, in a medieval Europe-esqe setting?

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The whole point of precious metals is that they're difficult to obtain. That's what gives them value. – Separatrix Mar 15 at 14:20
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Additionally, why do you necessarily need physical currency at all? The King could just pay people in IOUs, otherwise known as "paper money". – Michael Kjörling Mar 15 at 14:24
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@user16295: but the question is about currency, and the point of currency is that it's difficult to counterfeit. Making currency out of scarce raw materials is one way to make it difficult to counterfeit, especially at a low tech level, but it's not the only way. Easily obtained raw materials can do fine as long as there's something else about your coins/notes that makes them difficult to forge. – Steve Jessop Mar 15 at 18:40
    
Another often overlooked virtue of metal as currency is the ability to melt down coins and recast them. It was a common practice for the King/Emperor to call in all the money and make new coins from the old ones. The money belongs to the King after all --- that's why it carries his image. More fascinating facts about currency can be found in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt:_The_First_5000_Years. – zetetic Mar 16 at 0:26
    
@user16295 And the OP undoubtedly knows that - the question is about an alternative to these, as we can infer from his question that all metals will be used to make armaments, or the supplier of metals is going to be cut off from the capital. – Vegard Mar 16 at 9:30

10 Answers 10

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Shell money was used as currency in many parts of the world well into the Industrial Era. They are durable, portable, recognizable and divisible, and so have a lot of the attributes that make for a good currency.

The most common shells used for this purpose were from ocean-dwelling mollusks. Shell money would be a little trickier to work into a woodland setting, but maybe you can invent a particularly attractive species of snail that lives in your forests.

More broadly, you may wish to look into the general concept of commodity money, where a particular commodity becomes a standardized unit of exchange. Non-metallic examples of this include cigarettes in prisons & POW camps, or beaver pelts in the fur-trapping era in Canada.

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@Jim2B Modern money is not inherently desirable. A number stored on a computer is even less so. A currency clearly does not inherently need to be desirable in and of itself. – Michael Kjörling Mar 15 at 15:04
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@MichaelKjörling "A number stored on a computer even less so" says the guy with 50k+ Stack Exchange rep. :-) – corsiKa Mar 15 at 16:55
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Hey, that fake internet fame is an important number! – technicalAugury Mar 15 at 17:07
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Actually oceanic-shell money would work best in a forest a thousand leagues from the ocean, provided there is a long and difficult trade route. This means that the shells are an intrinsically rare and scarce commodity in that part of that world. The local ruler may further strengthen this currency by giving himself a monopoly on the import of these shells, and severely punishing anyone caught smuggling them. (Smuggling is to shell currency as forgery is to paper currency). The traders might take back (say) acorns, for use as currency on a faraway tropical island without oak trees. – nigel222 Mar 15 at 18:59
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@corsiKa ...says the guy with nearly 50k on Stack Overflow alone, and a diamond. :-) More seriously though, money as represented by a computer-stored account balance represents something that is generally considered desirable, but the number itself isn't inherently desirable just like lots of paper money isn't inherently desirable either (compare Weimar Germany, or modern-day Zimbabwe). – Michael Kjörling Mar 15 at 19:41

You have two separate issues here. (1) The material of which the currency is made, which has to be capable of being stored without much deterioration plus it must also be at least fairly rare. (Trying to use wood for this purpose in a forest would not, alas, make everybody rich for more than an afternoon.) (2) The officially-issued and hopefully difficult to counterfeit tokens made up of this material, with coins made up of precious metal stamped with the ruler's head as the most familiar example.

You can have (1) without (2). The Romans used salt as a currency. Dried herbs and spices would also do. Note that it is preferable that they aren't available locally. Gemstones would also work as stores of value, but they can't supply lower denominations because they are so difficult to split.

But frankly, as user6295 has said, precious metals still seem the best bet, despite what you say about difficulties of supply. Coinage really doesn't use up that much metal. The soft and shiny metals that are best for coins - copper, silver and gold - are no use for weapons or armour. (Copper was in use for weaponry in ancient times, but it was dropped once better alternatives such as bronze and then iron were available.) Anyway, most people in medieval times were peasants who scarcely ever used money at all. The towns were more of a cash economy, but the poor could go their whole lives without ever having a gold coin touch their hands.

I'd find it slightly more likely that a savvy king decreed a move away from metal coinage for propaganda reasons (rather like the way that in WWII Britain iron railings and pots and pans were sent to be melted down "to make Spitfires", an activity that made very little difference to aircraft production, but gave everyone a lovely feeling of doing something for the cause) than because of true difficulties of supply. Or you could have a king who was an economic dunce and sent out a pointless decree that messed about with the currency for no purpose. Which is pretty plausible for a medieval setting, I suppose. Fortunately we are so much wiser now.

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I'll add this as a comment rather than as part of my answer because it is moving away from technicalAugury's question, but you can also have (2) without (1). That's what paper money is. The Chinese Tang Dynasty were probably the first real world government to hit on this idea, helped by the Chinese having developed paper early. They were also probably the first to discover how seductively easy it is to try to solve your revenue problems by simply printing more money resulting in runaway inflation: content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/… – Lostinfrance Mar 15 at 15:19
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Nitpick - Bronze is mostly copper, so the adoption of bronze did not diminish the utility of copper to any great degree. – WhatRoughBeast Mar 15 at 18:50
    
@WhatRoughBeast Oops! You are right, of course. Consider yourself the proud new owner of one of my nits. ;-) – Lostinfrance Mar 15 at 19:52

There is actually a fascinating precedent for this in history - the Rai stones. These massive circular stones were far too large and heavy to move whenever a transaction was required, so they relied on word-of-mouth ownership. No movement of the stones was necessary. In one case, a ship with a stone sank unrecoverably, and the stone was still used as valid currency even though it was now inaccessible, as it still existed.

This will only work in smaller communities where everybody knows everybody they are likely to trade with, such as the island where the Rai stones were used.

Potentially in larger communities a token-based system (coins) would work fine too, the same as our modern currency but made from different materials - for example carved wood tokens, clay tokens stamped with an official seal, or simply paper notes as we use today.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rai_stones

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@cobaltduck The Wikipedia article is a nice starting point. – Brian Mar 15 at 16:47
    
Much more recently in Europe, Sweden once tried monitizing locally-mined copper in place of silver and gold. Since copper was not intrinsically very valuable, buying (say) a house might involve moving tens of tons of currency from one bank to another. ISTR high-denominations of copper currency weren't used for very long. – nigel222 Mar 15 at 19:06
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This is how paper money used to work. The government kept a stockpile of gold. Any person could own a little of that gold. But rather than carry the gold around, they gave you a piece of paper, called "a dollar bill", that indicated that you owned $1 worth of the gold in the vault. In the 20th century the connection to gold was broken, but still, in essence paper money (and now, electronic money) indicates you own a percentage of the national economic output. The government tries to regulate the amount of money to match the total output of the economy. – Jay Mar 15 at 19:29

Your luck is in, this problem has been solved before (although not solely due to a scarcity of precious metals). Emphasis mine:

For he makes his money after this fashion. He makes them take of the bark of a certain tree, in fact of the Mulberry Tree, the leaves of which are the food of the silkworms,–these trees being so numerous that whole districts are full of them. What they take is a certain fine white bast or skin which lies between the wood of the tree and the thick outer bark, and this they make into something resembling sheets of paper, but black. When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes. The smallest of these sizes is worth a half tornesel; the next, a little larger, one tornesel; one, a little larger still, is worth half a silver groat of Venice; another a whole groat; others yet two groats, five groats, and ten groats. There is also a kind worth one Bezant of gold, and others of three Bezants, and so up to ten. All these pieces of paper are [issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Kaan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; the Money is then authentic. Any one forging it would be punished with death.] And the Kaan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world.

With these pieces of paper, made as I have described, he causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold. And all the while they are so light that ten bezants’ worth does not weigh one golden bezant.

Furthermore all merchants arriving from India or other countries, and bringing with them gold or silver or gems and pearls, are prohibited from selling to any one but the Emperor. He has twelve experts chosen for this business, men of shrewdness and experience in such affairs; these appraise the articles, and the Emperor then pays a liberal price for them in those pieces of paper. The merchants accept his price readily, for in the first place they would not get so good an one from anybody else, and secondly they are paid without any delay.

-- The Travels of Marco Polo, Rustichello da Pisa, describing the 13th century empire of Kublai Khan.

There's some question whether a "Europe-esque medieval setting" could implement this as effectively as China did, but it certainly could make the attempt. I think one could argue that the "wonders" reported by Polo were as much an inspiration for the transition to the Renaissance as Classical western influences, but that's another essay ;-)

Note that there's a key balancing act here: the Emperor prints as much money as he likes and the money retains its value sufficiently well that an Indian merchant is prepared to sell his gold to the Emperor instead of taking it somewhere completely different. All artificial currencies have to play this game, and sometimes their controlling authorities get it wrong and the currency is debased.

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As others have mentioned, there are two kinds of money: money that has intrinsic value, like gold coins; and "fiat money", that has no intrinsic value but which the government declares to have value.

You can make fiat money out of anything. Most countries today make it out of paper, or out of electronic signals on computers. (Most of the money in the world today is stored on computers, not as paper money or coins. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the money was journal entries on paper at a bank, and not paper money or coins.) People have made coins out of wood. You could make them out of cloth or rocks or anything.

Anything that people value can be used as intrinsic money. People usually want something that is durable. Fruit would not make good money because it rots, you could go from being rich to poor in a few weeks.

If metals are rare in your society, that is exactly what would make them useful as money. If they are so rare that they have become so valuable that even a small metal coin would be worth several life times earnings for the average person, okay, you'll need to use something else. Animal pelts have been used as money. Sea shells. The wood of a rare tree. Someone mentioned that the Romans used salt. (The Latin word for salt is "salis", from which we get the English "salary".) Herbs and spices. Cows. Or a manufactured product that is widely sought. During World War 2, soldiers used cigarettes as money. Etc.

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"You can make fiat money out of anything." Not really. The money must be something that cannot be counterfeited (easily) or the currency will lose all value as people make their own. Even electronic signals must be designed in this way (using cryptography). Non-fiat currencies must have "value", but normally that value is associated with rarity, divisibility and beauty - there's a reason gold and silver were/are valued over other just-as-rare elements. Other examples like cows are more likely a form of bartering. – adelphus Mar 15 at 22:48
    
@adelphus Ok, let me rephrase. In principle, you could make fiat money out of anything. Sure, there are practical constraints for it to be a GOOD kind of money. It would be impractical to make money out of air or light rays. A decent money should be durable, difficult to counterfeit, etc. – Jay Mar 16 at 4:06
    
@adelphus The difference between barter goods and money is that money has widely recognized and accepted value, while a barter good is valuable only to specific people at specific times. There can be a fine line between "a product so widely demanded that almost anyone will accept it in barter" and a de facto money. Like cigarettes in WW2: no one declared them legal tender, but they were so widely used that they were almost, if not actually, a currency. – Jay Mar 16 at 4:08

Anything found naturally but rarely can be used. Or anything which is produced with much effort and difficulty can be used. The focus is on the fact that the thing should have natural value, as opposed to ascribed value (as in today's paper money).

The Aztecs and Mayans used cocoa beans for small everyday purchases such as rabbits, turkeys and eggs (Trade In Maya - Wikipedia). The Aztecs also used a measure of expensive cloth called quachtli for larger purchases such as weaponry and domesticated animals (Aztec#Economy - Wikipedia).

Food is the basic and easiest unit of currency. You would need something which can be stored for a long period of time and is easily consumed. Potatoes would be my first choice. Also prized bird feathers. And for more expensive purchases, you could use tiger skins.

Another interesting and viable item could be high quality arrow shafts without arrowheads. All of graded length and thickness. Speartips, arrowheads and axe-blades (made of obsidian) could also be employed.

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This was a bit long to make as a comment, but there was a transitional period between "barter" economies and fully monetized economies.

In ancient Cyprus, copper was the major export, and copper ingots were cast in what looked like a stylized "H". Looking more closely, the shape represented an ox hide. The beauty of this system was that an ox was a pretty valuable item in an ancient agrarian society, most people knew and understood the value of an ox, and it didn't matter if you were sailing with your copper to the Hittite Empire or the Old Kingdom of Egypt or the Minoan civilization of Crete; everyone knew what a copper ingot meant regardless of language, religion or ethnicity. Cypriots could trade with anyone, and you could even trade between empires (a Babalonyan trade caravan could pull into town and buy and sell things for copper ingots in Egypt, for example).

Given the setting in your scenario, since the kingdom seems in an out of the way setting, there will be issues in being able to trade with other kingdoms, much less having an internal economy. Like the answer upthread about the Great Khan's use of mulberry bark as currency, your kingdom is going to have to settle on something that everyone agrees has value, and is recognizable outside the kingdom as well (Indian gold and gem merchants would probably not be so keen to accept shells from the Great Khan, for example).

You already have stated that metal is rare and valuable, so fi coinage isn't common yet, ingots either shaped or stamped with the image of common valuables like the oxhide copper ingots of Cyprus might serve.

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Arabs will happily trade in camels (I want to buy this woman. How many camels is it worth?).

Other civilizations might use slaves as a sort of currency. Your wealth was measured by how many slaves you had. Then you had to factor in:

  • amount of lands that your slaves could harvest
  • type of activity carried out
  • education level
  • age (young, old)
  • ability to produce more slaves on the long term (fertile mothers)

Basically, anything that:

  • requires effort to obtain
  • other people will accept in exchange for goods and services
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Squirrel pelts would be a natural choice of currency for a woodland area. They were used as such in Finland and Northern Russia. In theory other pelts can be used as well, but squirrels are of convenient size for currency.

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I'd take a look at the Wiki page Emergence of Money.

In the earliest instances of trade with money, the things with the greatest utility and reliability in terms of re-use and re-trading of these things (their marketability), determined the nature of the object or thing chosen to exchange.

For the pre-bronze age currencies, among the listed are:

  • Cattle
  • Grain
  • Obsidian
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